(MCT) — CHICAGO — Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton was never particularly interested in politics. She viewed the workings of Congress from afar, giving barely a passing thought to the policies being debated in Washington.
Then her 15-year-year-old daughter, Hadiya Pendleton, was shot to death while seeking shelter from the rain on the way home from school.
“My life has been forever changed because of what someone else did,” said Cowley-Pendleton, sitting in the living room of her Bronzeville condominium. “I’m not going to be extremely political, but if I can help someone else not go through what we’ve gone through, then I have to do what I can.
“These are the cards we have been dealt. If these are the shoes I need to walk in, I don’t mind walking in them.”
Hadiya’s murder on Jan. 29 made her a national symbol of gun violence in Chicago. Until then, Cowley-Pendleton thought that if she kept her children busy, paid close attention to where they were and taught them well, there would be no need to worry about Hadiya and her 10-year-old brother, Nathaniel Jr. getting swept away by violence.
“We were just regular parents who were slapped in the face and had our child snatched away from us,” she said. “The thought of her not being here because of guns is unfathomable.”
Cowley-Pendleton, 37, and Hadiya’s father, Nathaniel Pendleton, 42, sat down on Wednesday for an exclusive interview with the Tribune, explaining how they have coped as a family in the aftermath of their daughter’s murder.
Along their block, purple ribbons around trees blew gently in the wind, a simple memorial put in place by neighbors and friends. Inside their home, there are so many memories of Hadiya, memories that leave Cowley-Pendleton smiling one minute and crying the next.
Until this week, there had been no time to reminisce.
As Hadiya became the poster child for the problems of guns and violence, her parents were busy making sure her funeral was the kind of send-off she once told them she wanted. They were unaware that while they were cloistered inside mourning their loss, others were turning their daughter into a symbol.
At the same time, Cowley-Pendleton had come to represent the face of grieving mothers left behind when violence claims the lives of innocent children.
“I had no idea it was going like that,” Cowley-Pendleton said, adding that she and her husband had not followed early media reports about Hadiya. “By the time we found out about what had happened, it was already at the national level. I was so in awe.”
In the days following Hadiya’s murder, the family found shelter from grief in a flood of activity. First lady Michelle Obama attended the funeral. A week later, the parents were in Washington, lobbying the Senate for tougher gun laws and sitting next to the first lady as President Barack Obama talked about Hadiya in his State of the Union address. Cowley-Pendleton appeared in an ad sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns urging Congress to pass the president’s proposals for stricter gun laws.
Become active in the anti-violence movement helped them find meaning in Hadiya’s death. And for a while, it gave them a reprieve from their grief.
“It kept us from having to think about what we knew was waiting,” Nathaniel Pendleton said. “I didn’t want any time to stop and think. But every time I walked to the White House, it hit me that I’m here because my daughter is gone.”
Cowley-Pendleton was at her job as a customer service manager at a credit reporting company when she got a phone call from one of her daughter’s friends telling her Hadiya had been shot. She called Pendleton, who runs a catering company. Initially, after talking with police, they didn’t think Hadiya had been seriously injured.
But by the time Cowley-Pendleton got to Comer Children’s Hospital, her daughter was already gone. Neither parent had a chance to speak to her.
Relatives and close friends tried to build a cocoon around the family, sheltering them as much as possible from an onslaught of media from around the world. If not for those close to them, the people who make up what the family calls a “village,” the publicity would have been overwhelming, they said.
Hadiya’s parents had been adamant about keeping the funeral free of politics and make sure it was a celebration of the teenager’s life. It would be a lively event, a suitable send off for a teenage girl who loved classical music and the British rock band Coldplay. It would be a time for her many friends to say goodbye.
“She always said she wanted her funeral to be a party,” said Cowley-Pendleton. “ She was a big fan of the ‘Twilight’ books and was on ‘Team Edward.’ She used to say she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered over (actor) Robert Pattinson’s grave.”
The family had heard about petitions calling for the president to attend the funeral. They feared it would be a distraction. But when Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office called to say the first lady wanted to come, they considered it an honor.
“Hadiya would have loved to meet the first lady and perform for her,” said Cowley-Pendleton. “So I decided, why not let her perform for her at her home-going. It was all about Hadiya.”
She called the trip to Washington “surreal.” The president wore a purple tie when he gave his State of the Union speech, and Cowley-Pendleton likes to think it was in honor of Hadiya, because that was her favorite color.
The parents learned of the arrest of two suspects in the murder while they were in Washington. Cowley-Pendleton didn’t want to talk about them. But Nathaniel Pendleton said while waiting for the legal process to play out, they will concentrate on helping other children through mentorships and other programs.
“We have more work to do,” he said. “That’s our purpose now, to catch kids like this before anything like this can happen.”
Now, back at home, the memories of the whirlwind of events are overshadowed by memories of Hadiya.
“She loved to sit in that corner with her feet on the couch, tweeting and texting,” Cowley-Pendleton said. “The last Facebook post I made was a picture of her sitting on the floor right there.”
But Cowley-Pendleton does not want any one to pity her family. That is not who they are, she said.
“I can deal with the concept that she is gone, but it is difficult to deal with the reality of it. We can laugh because there are no regrets here,” she said. “She knew I loved her. She knew her daddy loved her.
“We just miss our baby so much.”
(Glanton is a special correspondent)